How the Giller Prize Became Associated with Genocide | Unpublished
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Source Feed: Walrus
Author: Josiah Neufeld
Publication Date: June 11, 2024 - 06:30

How the Giller Prize Became Associated with Genocide

June 11, 2024
O n November 13, 2023, less than four minutes into the awards ceremony for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the evening’s host, comedian Rick Mercer, was attempting a joke about Alice Munro when two young people quietly appeared next to him onstage holding signs that read, “Scotiabank funds genocide.” After a moment of shocked silence, another protester shouted from the floor, “Scotiabank currently has a $500 million stake in Elbit Systems. Elbit Systems is supplying the Israeli military’s genocide against the Palestinian people!” Mercer awkwardly grasped at the signs, ripping one of them. The cameras cut away, and the band struck up. Within seconds, event staff were ushering the protesters into the hands of police. Awarded annually to a work of Canadian fiction, the Giller Prize was founded in 1994 by Jack Rabinovitch in honour of his late wife, literary journalist Doris Giller. Initially, the purse was $25,000; it has since grown to a very generous $100,000. Winning, or even just being shortlisted, can be a game-changer for an author, dramatically boosting book sales and unlocking new opportunities. That the evening’s main sponsor, which joined the prize in 2005, has an outsize investment in an Israeli weapons maker appeared to be news to many in the room; several attendees walked out. At the time, Scotiabank’s asset management arm held investments totalling approximately $500 million in Elbit Systems Ltd., a company that builds drone technology, guided missiles, and other weapons used by the Israel Defense Forces in its assault in Gaza, making Scotiabank one of Elbit’s largest shareholders. Mercer regained his composure and welcomed the audience back with a word of gratitude to Scotiabank. According to a witness, Giller organizers berated police into charging the protesters. The next day, Giller executive director Elana Rabinovitch sent a short statement to the Globe and Mail saying the protest showed “disrespect to Canadian authors and their literary achievements” and that “organizers are working with local law enforcement authorities.” (In an email to The Walrus, Rabinovitch denied that staff had collaborated in any way, and at any time, with police.) Toronto police eventually charged three people in their twenties with using fake credentials to get into the event and interfering with the lawful use of property. When a recording of the broadcast was posted online, the interruptions were removed. Some weeks later, Sarah Bernstein, the night’s big winner, was preparing to be interviewed for an online Giller Book Club session. She claims organizers warned her that any audience questions about Gaza or the protest would be edited out. (Rabinovitch denied this too.) Bernstein, whose winning novel, Study for Obedience, can be read as a fable about creative rebellion against oppression, dropped out in protest. The event was officially postponed and never rescheduled. An open letter from writers and publishers soon circulated online expressing support for the protesters, calling for the charges against them to be dropped, and condemning the “unfolding genocide happening in Gaza and Palestine.” More than 2,000 people signed. One of the first was Omar El Akkad, whose 2021 Giller-winning novel, What Strange Paradise, examined the violence and misery experienced by refugees crossing the Mediterranean. El Akkad says he didn’t attend the November gala because he wasn’t feeling celebratory given the catastrophe unfolding in a part of the world where he grew up. He was shocked when he learned about Scotiabank’s Elbit connection. But the Giller Prize’s response—or lack thereof—left El Akkad feeling betrayed. “If you are in support of the slaughter in Gaza, put out a statement saying so. If you are opposed, put out a statement saying that,” he says. “Because I guarantee you that either one of those statements, no matter how loud it might seem, is not as deafening as the silence we’ve gotten from the Giller, Hot Docs, and the slew of cultural organizations that have decided that it’s only worth being brave when there are no consequences attached.” There has been a long-standing tension between writerly consciences and corporate sponsors. John Berger famously denounced the Booker Prize’s colonial supporter in 1972—Booker McConnell’s wealth had its roots in the nineteenth-century sugar trade and, thus, in Caribbean enslavement—and vowed to give half his prize money to the London-based Black Panthers movement. In 2015, an investigation by Michael Lista at Canadaland pressured Scott Griffin, founder and funder of the Griffin Poetry Prize, into cutting ties with a company that manufactured parts for armoured vehicles sold to Saudi Arabia. The situation with Scotiabank is unique as it underwrites numerous arts organizations in Canada besides the Giller, including the Contact Photography Festival and the Hot Docs film festival. Protests have targeted those sponsorships as well. In March, No Arms in the Arts—a grassroots campaign of writers, artists, and filmmakers—ran a ten-day counter program to Hot Docs aimed at shaming Scotiabank into fully divesting from Elbit. Noor Naga, whose debut novel was a finalist for the 2022 Giller, spoke in front of a banner that featured the Scotiabank logo dripping with blood. “What we need from our banks is that they do not simultaneously fund and profit from a genocide,” she said. “There isn’t a book or a film or painting here that is worth the slaughter of a single civilian over there. Let alone 30,000 civilians.” A number of authors—among them past Giller winners, nominees, and jurors—have since decided to boycott the prize, saying they’ll withhold future books from consideration until there’s a move to divest. These writers include El Akkad, Naga, Thea Lim, Casey Plett, and André Forget. David Bergen dropped out of a Giller Book Club meeting because he couldn’t countenance his art being used to burnish the reputation of a financial institution that was profiting from war. “My longlisted book is an anti-war novel, and yet it’s being supported by an arms manufacturer,” he says. “If I didn’t say anything, my hypocrisy would be immense.” Longlisted author Erum Shazia Hasan also cancelled her Giller Book Club appearance because, as she wrote on Instagram: “My principles, my decades in the international development/aid community, my novel which explores the ethics of doing good, do not allow me, even tangentially, to be associated with weapons.” In April, Rabinovitch sent an email to publishers asking them to confirm that any authors whose books they submit this year are “willing to honour the nomination and commitments” associated with the prize. Authors often sign statements like this when their books are entered for awards. But, this year, the instructions were sent out ahead of the submission deadline in a separate email. Two days earlier, PEN America had cancelled its Literary Awards ceremony after nine of the ten finalists for its top prize withdrew their books over the organization’s failure to condemn the assault on Gaza. The Giller, it seemed, was hoping to avoid a similar embarrassment. Here’s an even better way to avoid embarrassment, says El Akkad: cut ties with a company that builds weapons being used to kill children. “I don’t think that’s a very onerous request,” he told me. If Scotiabank won’t divest from Elbit, the Giller could walk away from the sponsorship. Yes, it would mean a smaller, less glitzy prize, but it would be a prize with more integrity, as author Shani Mootoo pointed out in the Toronto Star. When Jack Rabinovitch launched the Giller Prize, there was no big corporate sponsor. The winning book still sold three times as many copies as it would have otherwise. The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction comes with a mere $15,000 (US), yet it cements a writer’s career. Festivals and prizes need sponsors because they are expensive to run. According to the Canada Revenue Agency, the Giller Foundation spent $909,705 in 2022. Hot Docs costs more than $11 million to operate. The fallout for organizations that lose patrons can be dramatic. Most recently, threats of author boycotts pushed Scottish book festivals, such as the Stratford Literary Festival, to sever links with Baillie Gifford over the investment firm’s links with the fossil fuel industry. Baillie Gifford is one of the biggest corporate supporters of Scottish arts events, and its support will be hard to replace in a time of tightening arts funding. “We all fear climate change and deplore conflict,” said Stratford’s festival director, Annie Ashworth, in the BBC, “but the withdrawal of sponsorship from book festivals is not the solution.” The writers I spoke to for this piece, however, told me that a literary organization more afraid of losing corporate sponsors than of losing authors has failed to understand something fundamental about what it means to write. “Writers are people whose job it is to say what it means to be human,” says El Akkad. The average professional writer in Canada makes $12,879 per year. Most will never be reviewed in the Globe and Mail or shortlisted for one of the country’s few literary awards. It’s precisely because writers earn so little from their art that they can’t afford to squander the cultural capital they do have. That capital—the kind created by honest, piercing, revelatory art—is a currency corporations like Scotiabank can never amass on their own. Novelist Catherine Hernandez attended the 2023 Giller ceremony, and the experience caused her to rethink some things. “That night made me really question the ways in which I measure success,” she says. At the recent Toronto Palestine Film Festival, Hernandez was one of several writers invited to read aloud the poetry of Palestinian poets. She remembers thinking, “This is success. This community feels they can trust me to read this poetry. They feel like I can share the stage with them.” Reuters recently revealed that, in March, Scotiabank quietly divested itself of half its stock in Elbit, reducing the value of its shares to $237.6 million. Interpreting that as a sign their actions were working, campaigners vowed to keep up the pressure until Scotiabank sold off its entire stake in the arms manufacturer. Thea Lim, whose novel An Ocean of Minutes was a finalist for the 2018 Giller Prize and who spoke at the launch of No Arms in the Arts, says the protest was never about the Giller but instead targeted its sponsor. She’s grateful for everything the Giller has done for writers and the arts, and she believes it could continue that work even without a corporate benefactor. “If they put meaningful pressure on Scotiabank to divest from Elbit,” she says, “they’d show they are the institution we hope they are: one that stands for something.”The post How the Giller Prize Became Associated with Genocide first appeared on The Walrus.

Comments

James O’Grady
June 11, 2024

If it were genocide, they’d all be dead by now. In fact it’s the Palestinians who have been clamouring for the destruction or genocide of Israel for decades. Really tired of Russian and Palestinian propaganda. If you don’t like it here you’re free to leave but we are not going to change our ways to accommodate the ways of terrorists. No chance. 


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